Telling Stories, Building Altars

Mexican American Women’s Altars in Oregon

FACING THE MAIN DOOR of Juan and Yara Santos’s home in Madras, Oregon, are images of the Virgin Mary and Saint Theresa. The images surround an intricate crucifix in wood and metal that belonged to Juan Santos’s family, whose men have been metal workers for many generations. In the living room, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe stands alone on the main wall. The Santoses told me they want visitors to know they are in a Catholic household, welcoming people who have different beliefs while affirming their own faith. In Salem, Veronica Picciori has placed an altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe in a corner of her living room. A floral composition, fresh flowers, and candles are offered to the Virgin, who Picciori believes protects her household. 

Images of saints and candles are evident in homes, restaurants, and businesses throughout Oregon, sometimes in unexpected places. In a small historic town near John Day, for instance, where the Mexican community is not very large, the only Mexican restaurant features the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, painted on a piece of cloth, hanging on the main wall. She is there, I was told, to protect the business, the family who owns it, and the customers who come to share a meal. These expressions of spirituality are deeply rooted in people’s lives and are a part of the traditions that are so important in Oregon’s bicultural and bilingual communities. Traditions establish a link, a lifeline, between the country of origin and the adopted country. Women’s altars follow one of those traditions and are an illustration of how women and religion function within Mexican homes and the broader community. These mundane, yet very private practices help keep a culture alive. 

Figure 1
Eufrosina Benitez from Ontario stands by the altar she made and dedicated to her mother.

All photograhs are courtesy of the OHS Folklife Archive

Many Latino communities in Oregon maintain kinship and social connections in more than one country. Mexican communities in particular send or depend on remittances, take part in collective community projects and hometown organizations, and participate in celebrations for patron saints.[1] For many people, religious beliefs and practices are fundamental to the definition of who they are. This is even more the case for transnational individuals whose lives, because of migration, face continual change and uncertainty.[2] Religion and, specifically, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe are sources of great strength for Mexican American women whose altars and the stories behind them are part of a folk religious system that allows for an affirmation of their heritage and a recognition of their role in it. 

The connection between women and altars is an ancient one. In many pre-patriarchal cultures — in Old Europe, the Near East, the Indus Valley, and the Mediterranean — altars to goddesses are found in hearths, since fireplaces symbolize home and family.[3] These goddesses are honored in order to celebrate women’s life-giving and life-nourishing qualities. The first Western domestic altars were made in the Neolithic era, around 5000–6000 BCE, a period when women were leaders of religion and goddesses were venerated. In excavations of cultural sites, researcher Marija Gimbutas has discovered many images that represent pregnant goddesses, and bread mothers who protect the bread have been found near ovens. In Romania, researchers uncovered open shrines to goddesses seated and flanked by young figures with holes for offerings to mother hearth, dating to 4000 BCE. These first altars have been connected to images on some Minoan seals, created centuries later, which represent goddesses officiating at the altar in the island of Crete.[4] 

Figure 2
These two shelves are a small section of Teresa Gonzales’s large altar, which occupies an entire room in her house.

The civilization of the goddess and her domestic altars underwent a transformation and diminished in importance as patriarchal rule and religions evolved and consolidated in early Western societies, beginning in the third millennium BCE. In ancient Greece, for example, as public temples grew in imperial importance, female-centered domestic worship was marginalized and limited to the private sphere. The virginal Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, domesticity, and family, received the first offering at family rituals at the fireplace located at the center of the house, but there was no public cult that venerated her. In the Mediterranean basin, the ancient Romans’ equivalent was Vesta, whose name means “home and hearth.” With the advent of Christianity, images of saints, Mary, and Christ emerged for domestic use. By the thirteenth century, the cult of the Virgin Mary predominated. 

Well before the sixteenth century, when Christianity was imposed on the indigenous population, a wide array of religious beliefs and practices existed in Mesoamerica. Belief in animism abounded; and the Aztec, after the conquest of Mexico’s central valley, imposed their pantheon of gods and spirits on the culture. Spirits were connected to people and places, and altars and shrines were built in sacred places that were often defined by their topography — hills and mountains, plateaus and canyons, rivers and lakes. When the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs began in 1519, the Franciscan friars who accompanied the conquerors tried to impose Catholicism on the region and eradicate native peoples’ forms of worship. What developed was a religious syncretism, a blend of Christian theology and pre-Columbian animism. The different cultures eventually came together in Central America, bringing with them the ancestral practice of the altar. In Mesoamerica, the confluence of diverse traditions left as its inheritance the domestic cult of the Virgin and saints. It is that spiritual inheritance that inspires people to build sacred shrines, a space that represents intricate structures of meanings.[5]

HOME ALTARS MAKE VISIBLE the history of women and a people and their oppression in both public and private ways. The images and objects placed on a Mexican home altar tell a story of conquest, adaptation, negotiation, and cultural complexity. This ancient tradition has crossed the borders of time and space, so that in Oregon we find home altars built by women of Mexican descent and by more recent immigrants.[6]

An altar, by definition, is “any elevated place or structure upon which sacrifices may be offered or before which religious ceremony may be enacted.” In Christian churches, it is “a table or similar structure before which the divine offices are recited and upon which the Eucharist is celebrated.”[7] A Roman Catholic altar can be considered a sacred space where a priest — only men in Roman Catholic and Oriental and Eastern Orthodox traditions — formally represents God. Priests administer the sacraments and, as intermediaries between God and the congregation, advise on spiritual matters. The worship is highly codified, and the Church itself represents a spiritual but often unapproachable power. It is a patriarchal institution that has historically marginalized and silenced women. 

A home altar, however, identifies a private, sacred place of celebration. Often referred to as mi altarcito— my little altar — a home altar represents a space of worship where women’s time and women’s space are honored. The arrangement of a home altar can vary according to the taste of the altarista, as women who have altars are often called. The Virgin of Guadalupe — Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe or la Guadalupana — often occupies a privileged position in Mexican tradition. Luisa Zargoza’s altar in Medford, for example, is clearly dedicated to the Virgin. Her brother in Mexico painted the tableau, which constitutes the altar, for Luisa to take to Oregon in 2004. It shows the Virgin’s apparition to Juan Diego. The Virgin of Guadalupe commands intense devotion because of her character as a mother; she is, in fact, considered the Great Mother of Mexico and wears a belt — is in cinta— which signifies that she is pregnant. Her dark complexion shows that she is mestiza and, as such, is like all Mexicans. The position of her hands, which symbolizes the act of praying in western iconography, indicates a giving and offering to the indigenous population. Her red robe denotes courage and strength, while moon rays point to her feminine qualities. The starry mantle indicates that she is the queen of the skies and, according to some interpreters, the constellations that were present during her apparition. There is often a serpent at her feet, representing the god Quetzalcoatl, and the roses recall her apparition to Juan Diego, a humble peasant. Maria Angel in Forest Grove told me the story:
Juan Diego es como un ejemplo. Aunque el haya sido muy humilde aunque haya sido de una familia muy pobre, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe se fijo en el para mandar el mensaje, que aunque nosotros estemos como estemos, ella siempre va a estar allí con nosotros, y que aunque muchas veces lo ignoraron por ser quien era y no lo tomaban en cuenta, a ella no le importó … y tuvo la gran dicha de verla y de estar con ella en sus apariciones, de servirle como mensajero y ahora ya es santo.

Juan Diego is like an example. Even if he was of humble origin and came from a poor family, our Lady of Guadalupe chose him to send the message, so even if we are what we are, she is always going to be there with us, and although they ignored him for being who he was, and they did not pay any attention to him … he had the great gift to see her and be part of her apparitions, to be her messenger and now he is already a saint.[8]According to the story, the Virgin of Guadalupe chose a simple person to give voice to her request to build a cathedral to honor her in the place where roses and other flowers bloomed in winter, so the bishop would believe Juan Diego and obey her request. This choice indicates the Virgin’s understanding and love for all Mexicans, rich as well as poor. 

The first image in Zargoza’s altar tells this story, which is especially poignant for her because she left Mexico to run away from an abusive husband and to build a better life for herself and her children. She is grateful to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who has protected her and allowed her to express some of her potential as a woman and as a mother. After eight years in the United States, Zargoza feels at home in Medford. Her second husband loves and respects her and their children, and she is now building her own altar, as her mother and grandmother in Mexico did before her. The image or statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe is always present in her altar. 

In Ontario, in eastern Oregon, Teresa Gonzales has an entire room dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and her favorite saints. Many times a mother and grandmother, Gonzales has lived in Oregon since the 1950s. Her devotion to the Virgin is clearly indicated by the sacred images present in her space of worship: the Virgin by herself, her apparition to Juan Diego, images of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, Saint John of the Lakes, the crucifixion of Jesus, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the representation of the Holy Trinity, a dollar bill, el Niño Jesus, a votive candle, a glass of water, santitos or estampitas (prayer cards), rosaries, photographs of her children and grandchildren, trinkets, and an American flag. According to Gonzales,
Me faltan muchas virgenes, porque nosotros Mexicanos tenemos muchas Virgenes … yo tengo Cubanas, como Santa Barbara y la Negrita.

I don’t have many Virgins [in Oregon], because we Mexicans worship many Virgins … [instead ] I have Cuban virgins, like Saint Barbara and the Black One.[9] 

Figure 3
Images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, such as this one on San Juana Herrera’s altar in Ontario, Oregon, are prevalent in Mexican women’s altars.

As a mother who lost a son and knows the pain and suffering of mothers, Gonzales believes the Virgin will be willing to intervene and protect, and she asks for protection and guidance on behalf of her family. Gonzales’s devotion grants her a special position in her family, and her children and family members ask her for advice and support:
Y dijo: te traigo esta veladora y el papelito para ver si me la prendes…. Le dije: Persígnate … Pon el papelito ahí en este platito y luego pon la velita y luego préndela, pero primero persígnate … hasta me encargo de lo demás de pedirle si te conviene y si es, que te conceda ese deseo … porque hasta cuando andaban mal en la escuela … les decía yo, tráiganme una velita y apunten lo que quieren y allí se lo pongo pues al altar.

He told me: I brought you this candle and a little piece of paper to see if you can light it…. I told him: cross yourself … put the paper in this little dish and then put the candle, and light it, but first cross yourself…. I will take care of the rest, to ask if what you wished for is good for you and if it is, I’ll ask that your wish be granted … because even when they did not do well at school … I told them to bring me a candle and to write down what they wanted and I put it there, on the altar.[10]Gonzales does not consider herself a healer, but she knows herbs and prayers that heal and she is generous with advice to her family members and the friends they bring to talk to her. 

Figure 4
This image shows Eva Castellanoz’s main altar, where she incorporates a statue of Ganesh from Hindu tradition.

Spiritual healers often have ornate, complex altars. Eva Castellanoz is a well-known and respected folk artist, community organizer, and curandera (healer). She has lived in Oregon for over forty years, and she has many altars in her home in Nyssa, in eastern Oregon. A small altar on her living room mantle is dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin’s image is on the wall next to a photo of a son who died in a car accident. Both images look over family members whose pictures are placed on the mantelpiece with a poem written by one of her grandchildren. The composition of the altar reveals not only the altarista’s aesthetic sense but also a symbolic meaning that the accurate arrangement reveals. Eva feels ostracized from her community church because of her work with other women, and she does not go to church any longer. She celebrates her faith at home and officiates at her altar. 

Figure 5
This corner in Eva Castallanoz’s home in Nyssa illustrates her belief that everything is an altar.

THE PRESENCE OF THE VIRGIN of Guadalupe defines an altar as a place where women’s lives and suffering are acknowledged and recounted. Women’s lives have historically been determined by a biological difference, that is, their capacity to create life, which is at the foundation of women’s situations, their ways of being human, the peculiarity of their experiences, and their aspirations and potentiality. By praying at a private altar, women express their faith and engage in a process that helps them become aware of the condition of their existence. As folklorist and anthropologist Kay Turner points out, “At their altars women repeatedly engaged in combining religious objects and idea, uniting the material and the spiritual in an exploration of consciousness itself and in the subsequent formulation of values for human living.”[11] Through this reflection on life, on everyday events, and ultimately on their role in the family and in society, women gain strength for themselves and their loved ones.

The aesthetic arrangement of a private altar not only defines the personal taste of the altarista but it also speaks about a cultural heritage that is transmitted through mothers, grandmothers, or aunts. It is, therefore, emblematic to find the Virgin of Guadalupe so often an important element in women’s altars. 

The stories I heard when interviewing Latinas for the Las Artes Tradicionales en la Comunidad project situate women in a genealogy that sees a mother or grandmother officiating at her altar. Every woman I talked to had learned from her mother or grandmother, or sometimes from a beloved mother-in-law who had replaced the mother, the importance and love for the altar, for the rinconcito, the corner of the house where they gather their thoughts and their strength. The women had inherited their elders’ beliefs, faith, and strength and also the sacred objects to be used for worship. 

Maria Alanís from Portland, now in her fifties, crossed the border with her family when she was eighteen years old. She learned from her grandmother, who had a large altar in northern Mexico, while her mother used to carry with her little sacred images of saints, called santitos or estampitas, during their migrations. For Maria Angel from Forest Grove, now in her late twenties, both her mother and grandmother instilled in her the importance of this tradition. Elena Peña from Independence and Leticia Ramos from Woodburn remember vividly their grandmothers who kneeled every night to pray to the Virgin.

Lupe Castro from Adrian in eastern Oregon learned her faith from her mother-in-law, who she loved as her own mother, and at her death she inherited the image of la Virgen de San Juan. Lupe’s mother-in-law’s faith became her own, and she says it taught her how to cope with the death of her brother and sister who drowned when she was eleven years old. She survived the tragic accident, but she could not forgive herself. Now she has her own altar, and there
puedo discutir cerca de mi altar, mas cerquita estoy a Dios, lugar sagrado, de silencio, de amor, de salvación, emocional y físicamente; mi escape, todas las noches doy un beso a la virgen, tengo que pedirle perdón para poder dormir.

I can talk, close to my altar, I am closer to God, it is my sacred place of silence, love, and salvation both emotionally and physically. Every night I have to kiss the Virgin to ask for forgiveness to be able to sleep.[12]At her altar, Lupe repeats the same gestures she learned from her mother-in-law, and she cares for her rinconcito with the same love. She does not feel the need to go to church, she says, because at the altar she is with her god and he knows her. She told me that
mi creencia esta tan fuerte que puedo cerrar los ojos en los momentos tan difíciles ella aparece.

my faith is now so strong that in the hardest moments if I close my eyes the Virgin appears.[13]

LISTENING TO STORIES BY THE ALTAR can take these women back in time and to different places of devotion, suffering, and loss. The crossing of borders has marked the lives of many Mexican American women, and their stories reflect on that important experience and its consequences. For Maria Angel from Forest Grove, Lupe from Hillsboro, and Manuela Carasco from Adrian, the connection to their country of origin is strong and their devotion to the Virgin that they learned at home has become a source of strength. Lupe could not cross the border to join her husband the first time she tried, but her mother-in-law taught her that if she asks the Virgin with her heart she will receive. Lupe asked, she told me, and crossed the border safely with her young son to join her husband in Oregon:
Pues también eso del 12 de diciembre lo llegué a saber allá en México, con mi suegra, que ella es … muy devota de la Virgen de Guadalupe…. Y si no tengo en casa … la imagen verdad? pero siempre me acuerdo de ella, porque cuando estaba yo allá en México, … y fui a la Viña y mi suegra me dijo, tu pídele pero que te salga del corazón. Entonces yo me hinqué ante ella y le dije, si la primera vez no pude pasar y esta vez esta de que yo pase o no pase. Si es destino que yo no vaya y esté con mi esposo me quedo con mi hijo…. Pero gracias a Dios y siempre me acuerdo de ella que, pues le pedí de corazón, verdad y estoy aquí.

Well, I learned from my mother-in-law about the celebration of December 12th, since she is very devoted to the Virgin…. And even if I do not have her image in my home, you see, I always remember her, because when I was in México … I went to the chapel, la Viña del Rey, and my mother-in-law told me to ask her, but deep from my heart. So I kneeled and I said, if the first time I could not cross, now this time either I cross or I don’t. If it is my destiny that I cannot be with my husband, then I’ll remain here with my son…. But, I thank God and I always think of her because I asked her with all my heart and here I am.[14]

Figure 6
Adelina Muñoz is in the process of building an altar in her new home in Newport, Oregon.

Maria Angel’s devotion, learned from her mother and her grandmother, is also deeply rooted in her country of origin:
Mi abuelita … acostumbrava mucho a tener altar, en todo el año también … iba a cortar flores de las que ella tenia y prendía su veladora. Y luego mi mamá empezó también … nuestra señora de Guadalupe la tenía chiquita y ya después compraron una mas grande … nosotros nos criamos en Michoacán, en la casa de mi mamá, ellos tienen como unos 15 años haciéndolo [el altar] … Compartíamos todos las mismas actividades, nos integrábamos … haciendo las flores, acarreando el musgo, acomodando cajas de madera … nos dividíamos el trabajo de hacer el altar, pero siempre había una, mi hermana major, que nos dirigía.

My grandmother … always used to have an altar, even all year long … she used to cut flowers and light her candle. Then my mother started also … she had a small Virgin of Guadalupe … we grew up in Michoacán, in my mother’s home, they have around fifteen years building them…. We all shared in the preparation, we got involved, we made flowers, arranged the musk, we used wood boxes … we shared in the work, but there always was someone, my older sister, to guide us.[15] 

Angel has always enjoyed participating in family activities and learning traditions and craft. Because of her commitment to her culture, she agreed to build an altar for the exhibit, “Our Ways: History and Culture of Mexicans in Oregon,” at the Oregon Historical Society in 2003. It was meant to be a tribute to women’s traditions, but at first Angel did not know to whom to dedicate it. When she learned that the altar had to be ready by September 15, she chose Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, our Lady of Sorrow, the patron saint of Tecario, whose celebration is September 16. In Angel’s hometown in Mexico, everybody was building altars to the Virgin, and she told her mother that she was proud to share the tradition with people in Oregon. She made paper flowers and other decorations and carefully arranged her composition. While installing it with the help of her husband and a young nephew, she kept thanking the Virgin and kissed her image before leaving. She was grateful to see her tradition respected and accepted by the community at large:
Desde siempre, desde que me salí yo de mi casa yo tenia tanta ganas de seguir.

Forever, since I left home, I always wanted so much to continue the tradition.[16] 

IN THESE WOMEN’S STORIES, north and south are poles of a journey that many generations have known. For Mexicans, as well as for other transcultural and transnational groups, identity and home are complex and difficult concepts. Most of these families have relatives living on both sides of the Mexico-United States border, and they maintain important kinship and social connections between Oregon and Mexico. Some of them continue to participate in patron saint celebrations and hometown organizations.[17] Traditions allow people to maintain a connection to their country of origin; they bring families and communities together and provide the support needed to face the difficulty and joy of living in the country of adoption. Maria Angel expressed clearly the importance of traditions:
A mi me encanta mi cultura, por que es algo que me hace sentir como una parte de allá, como que estoy aquí pero también tengo una buena parte de mi cultura conmigo todavía y … no tengo porque perderla, estoy aquí, estoy entre otra cultura pero … mi cultura, mis costumbres pueden seguir conmigo. A principio dices … como lo voy a hacer, no porque el año pasado yo hice mi nacimiento fuera de los apartamentos, había un espacio que no se mojaba y [pensé][ van a decir que esta mujer esta loca … pero … así yo lo creo, así fue como yo aprendí…. tal vez en un futuro yo lo pueda mejorar, pueda aprender un poco mas de las costumbres de aquí.

I love my culture, because it makes me feel I am there. I am here but I also keep a good part of my culture always with me … and I do not have to lose it. I am here, in another culture but … my culture and my ways can stay with me. At the beginning you say … how am I going to do this, because last year I built a nativity scene, outside of the apartments, where it was dry … and [I thought] they are going to say that I am crazy … but … this is my belief, this is what I learned…. maybe in the future I can be better, I can learn some from the traditions here.[18]

HISTORICALLY, WOMEN HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED the private sphere — the home — as their area of competence, a space where their power can develop and be affirmed and recognized. But to be home, to find home, as poet Audre Lorde tells us, means more than having a physical space. Home is ultimately the house of the self. It is the acceptance of the materiality of the body that houses the self, which is expressed through the body. This consideration has important ramifications, since it implies the recognition and acceptance of the physicality of human experiences, which in women’s lives include menstruation, childbearing, lactation, and in some societies burial rituals — the caring and cult of the dead. The cycles of birth, life, and death — all connected to the body — seem particularly resonant in women’s lives, and home is the space where they can return both physically and metaphorically. It is a center of the self, of family life, and of spiritual life.

It is in this context that the words of Eva Castellanoz find their fullest meaning. For her, “everything is an altar, your life is an altar.” She told me about the importance of her heritage: “This is my family’s altar. I was born to them [the saints] and grew up with them. This is part of my mother’s altar who had many saints.”[19] For Castellanoz, altars are life-giving and life-nurturing. The patroness of Mexico in the Catholic Church, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, represents both cultural unity and motherhood; she has been accepted as an important part of their cultural heritage by Mexicans and Mexican Americans who believe she helped them through the conquest and can guide them in their diasporic existence

In Castellanoz’s case, as in many others, the altar is connected to the maternal, and she has integrated part of her mother’s altar into her own. Her parents were curanderos— healers — and she told me they transmitted their knowledge and beliefs to her. Her mother Conchita gave her el Santo Niño de Antocha, the Child Saint of Antocha, long before she died. The statue, an enthroned and crowned Baby Jesus who is said to perform miracles in the face of drought and natural disasters, came with them from Mexico. Castellanoz’s parents offered him oranges and shoes, and prayers to him have been credited with helping Castellanoz’s father. In charge of the water at a ranch, her father fell asleep one night just as the water overflowed and inundated a neighbor’s farm. When he saw the disaster, he started cleaning up while praying to the Santo Niño de Antocha. Once he realized he could not repair the damage, however, he went home convinced that he was going to be fired. The following day, nobody came over to complain, so he went back to the ranch where he saw that everything was dry. Only a child’s footprints could be seen in the earth, which indicated to him that the Niño de Antocha had performed a miracle. 

Figure 7
Family photographs are an important part of Teresa Gonzales’s altars.

The altar of a curandera tells many stories, Castellanoz told me, and represents the “faith of Mexican people who always had beliefs and miracles.”[20] San Martin de Porres, for instance, is said to have performed a miracle for the family. He is the black saint of Peru and the patron saint of social justice and of people of mixed races, and he is often invoked by the sick and the poor. According to Castellanoz, he cured her mother’s tuberculosis. Sick in the hospital, her mother was not doing very well. One day, while Castellanoz was visiting, a black doctor came and touched her forehead, and she recovered completely. Castellanoz says the black doctor was in reality San Martin de Porres, since they were told that no black doctor worked at the hospital. Her mother’s faith in many saints has been transmitted to Castellanoz, who proudly says: “The authorities have to be on the altars: San Judas Tadeo, who helps as a lawyer in difficult cases; Santa Lucia, who heals eyes; and San Martin Caballero, who is never absent from his shop, although his motto is ‘little work and lots of money.'” He is honored with gifts of water and a few raisins at noon. 

Everything on women’s altars is meaningful and shares in the sacred. According to Castellanoz, “You add it to the altar and everything is a symbol.” Once, when picking up a branch she found in the snow, for example, Castellanoz inadvertently broke one of its lateral branches and exclaimed, “Oh, I broke your hand.” To her surprise, she told me, the branch answered that now she had the hands that could heal. The branch is now on her altar, together with Ganesh, a statue of the Hindu god made by one of her friends, Saint Francis of Assisi to help in litigations, and the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes, who is said to accomplish many miracles just as the Virgin of Guadalupe does. 

A deep sense of the sacred pervades Castellanoz’s altar, where the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the largest. Behind this image, there are photos and pedimentos— requests — written on different kind of papers, according to the saint invoked. The pedimentos stay there until the request is granted. As a spiritual healer, Castellanoz is seen as an intermediary between the sacred and the petitioners. The divinity will answer her, petitioners believe, because of her faith and special status as a healer and officiator. Jars of herbs occupy the lower part of the altar, Castellanoz told me, and the altar cares for and empowers the herbs. 

Home altars commonly have a major image — the Virgin of Guadalupe, Baby Jesus, the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes, or favorite saints — together with other images of saints or martyrs, called santitos, votive candles, flowers, photographs, trinkets, and knickknacks. All these objects speak of individual lives marked by temporality, family history, relations, and lineage. Castellanoz told me: “You put around you things that will remind you not to be selfish, to be a woman.” In her altar dedicated to women, photographs of female family members, tea cups and different containers, and a statuette of a goddess are reminders of the earth and the materiality of the body. In her book on home altars, Kay Turner writes that the materiality of the objects suggests the materiality of the body:
The body is a central metaphor for relationship — only in the body and through the body do we come into relation with others. That home altars are populated primarily with sacred images is an indication of the essential desire to bring spiritual and physical, sacred and profane realms together through a reliance on the body as the chief source of knowing and being known.[21]

The Virgin of Guadalupe, often referred to as simply la Morenita, the Dark One, represents cultural unity and motherhood. On women’s altars, she has the status of a symbolic mother and is a figure of authority, a point of reference and support in the world. She is said to have the power to help interpret the world and change it. Her knowledge and understanding are based on her once human nature and, therefore, on her ability to give value to personal experience. The recognition and appreciation of the Virgin of Guadalupe signifies the acknowledgment and acceptance of womanhood and one’s worth. For Maria Angel, she represents
mi confidente, mi mejor amiga, mi mama, mi compañía…. Todo lo que a mi me pasa le puedo platicar a ella con confianza … pedir ayuda en cualquier momento…. Mi mama siempre nos decía tu tienes una mejor madre que yo…. Y poco a poco yo estoy aprendiendo de mi fe como hacerla crecer, poner toda mi confianza, mas que nada confiar, confiar que aunque una no sea una persona perfecta uno puede pedirle con confianza auxilio….

my confident, my best friend, my mother, my companion…. I can tell her everything that is happening to me and trust her … I can ask her help anytime…. My mother always told me that I had a better mother than her…. And little by little I am learning from my faith, how to make it grow, put all my trust, and most of all trust that although one is not perfect, one can ask with trust for help.[22] 

Like many other women I interviewed, Maria Angel feels strongly the need to maintain and enrich her traditions. This conviction leads her to make special dishes, paper flowers, and decorations for celebrations for the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12 and the Day of the Dead on November 1–2, as well as to build altars for her home and her community. People’s lives are like a tapestry, where cherished threads from different traditions are woven together to form the fabric of society, and such festivities and customs play an important role in Oregon’s Latino population. The altar is a central touchstone in these families’ lives. It is a receptacle for everything that is meaningful, a place where people go for spiritual sustenance. It is also a living testament to a family’s history and to the history that has determined people’s lives through the centuries. 


My interest in the home altar tradition started four years ago while I was the coordinator of Las Artes Tradicionales en la Comunidad, a project of the Oregon Historical Society Folklife Program. I want to thank the Oregon Council for the Humanities for a research grant that allowed me to pursue my work on the altar tradition and many friends for their comments and advice.

1. See, for example, Luin Goldring, “The Mexican State and Transmigrant Organizations: Negotiating the Boundaries of Membership and Participation,” Latin American Research Review 37:3 (2002): 55–99.

2. See Alejandro Portes, “Immigration Theory for a New Century: Some Problems and Opportunities,” International Migration Review 31:4 (1997): 799–825; Peter Kivisto, “Theorizing Transnational Immigration: A Critical Review of Current Efforts,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24:4 (2001): 549–77; Thomas Faist, “Transnationalization in International Migrations: Implications for the Study of Citizenship and Culture,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 23:2 (March 2000): 189–222; Michael Kearney, “Borders and Boundaries of the State and Self at the End of the Empire,” Journal of Historical Sociology 4:1 (1991): 52–74.

3. The Indian Valley includes Pakistan and Gujarat, that is, Western India.

4. See, for example, Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses, ed. Miriam R. Dexter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); idem, The Language of the Goddess (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001).

5. Denise Linn, Altars: Bringing Sacred Shrines into your Everyday Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999); Kay Turner, Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1998).

6. Ramón A. Gutiérrez, “Conjuring the Holy,” Home Altars of Mexico, ed. Ramón A. Gutiérrez et al. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).

7. American Heritage Dictionary, 2d college ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977).

8. Maria Angel, interview with the author, December 11, 2003, Folklife Program Archive, Oregon Historical Society, Portland [hereafter OHS Folklife Archive]. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author.

9. Teresa Gonzales, interview with the author, August 5, 2004, OHS Folklife Archive.

10. Ibid.

11. Turner, Beautiful Necessity, 13.

12. Lupe Castro, interview with the author, August 5, 2004, OHS Folklife Archive.

13. Ibid.

14. Adelante Mujeres, interview by the author, April 29, 2002, OHS Folklife Archive. Adelante Mujeres is an organization for Latinas in Forest Grove, Oregon. Lupe requested that her name remain anonymous.

15. Maria Angel, interview with the author, December 11, 2003, OHS Folklife Archive.

16. Ibid.

17. See Goldring, “Mexican State and Transmigrant Organizations.”

18. Angel interview.

19. Eva Castellanoz, interview with the author, August 21, 2005, OHS Folklife Archive.

20. Ibid.

21. Kay Turner, “Mexican American Home Altars: The Art of Relationship” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, Austin, 1990), 166.

22. Angel interview.

Figure 8
Detail from Eva Castellanoz’s altar